Catharsis or Catalyst?

After watching Spark, a documentary on Burning Man, my thoughts kept coming back to the question of whether this festival has the power to spark a new way of thinking in its attendees. Or is it a cathartic exercise of partying in the week before we return to work more complacent than ever? After seeing a replica of Wall Street, does the investment banker return to work the next day as if nothing had changed? The key to answering this is to abandon perfectionist thinking–that something is revolutionary only if it is completely revolutionary–and focus on the concept of social capital.

Within a capitalist superstructure, it would be very difficult to completely divorce a movement from that structure. Some groups are more off-the-grid than others, but if you look somewhere there are economic considerations. Anarchist groups struggle with this in finding stable locations that are safer than a squat. Should they find a sympathetic rich person to pay the rent? Get jobs? Rob a bank? Each has trade-offs. Burning Man needs money to continue, though this does not mean that its anti-money message is diluted.

Another issue anarchists get hung up on is organization. Burning Man has a hierarchical structure so some would dismiss it as oppressive. I would respond to this two ways: it is not the existence of a hierarchy that is in itself oppressive. It is when this structure is ordered by power relations. The person at the top of the ladder tells everyone else what they can and cannot do. This does not seem to happen at Burning Man, at least not in an overtly dominant manner.

Secondly, we saw in Spark that the lack of organization can be disastrous. The organization instituted after 1996 enabled people to be more free together. Instead of a chaotic, war-of-all-against-all, everyone could express themselves. This reminded me of the German Idealist philosopher Georg Hegel, who criticized two conceptions of rights. The first was abstract right, or the freedom to do what we want, when we want, and how we want. This sounds great until there is a conflict. The other right was Kantian freedom, which really tells you what you can’t or shouldn’t do as a rational person. Hegel combined these two rights together through family, civil society, and the state, describing the making of an ideal society.

Hegel considered the monarchy in Prussia circa 1821 really close to this ideal state, so he was clearly wrong about a lot of things. Hegel had some terrible views on women and “primitive cultures” that affected his thinking. Burning Man could be seen as a microcosm of the Hegelian state, without his particular biases. Also, there are interesting connections that could be made with Hegel’s theory of aesthetics and the artistic experience that is Burning Man.

Burning Man, I would say, is a catalyst for non-capitalist thinking because of the importance given to social capital. Emphasizing human interactions that are not based on exchanges of commodities is extremely important as more and more of our interactions become economic rather than social. A well known example is the case of an afterschool program that kept having to deal with parents picking up their students late, so they started charging a fee for late pickups. This actually caused more parents to be late, as the dynamic became a monetary transaction. The parent didn’t feel bad and was less inclined to think of human consequence; they only had to hand over some money.

Social capital plays on aspects that make us human and influences our connections to other humans. It both reinforces these connections and also drives us to make more. A consequence of social capital not being quantified is that we never really know when our debt to others is paid. It might be a little over or a little under. I think this is what makes good friends, a kind of debt to each other, but this relationship disappears once the debt is put in economic terms. Sometimes I buy my friend a pack of cigarettes, then he buys me a beer, and so on, and at no point can we really say who owes who. This is the power of social capital, and Burning Man shows that maybe, just maybe, it can replace economic capital, and we can live in a society of friends.

James Funston is a fourth-year student at Portland State University, double-majoring in Philosophy and Psychology. In the Spring 2016 term, he created and taught a Chiron Studies course called “Beasts, Bots, and Beings,” which critically examined the narratives of animals, robots, and monsters in media and explored what the role of the nonhuman other reveals about human nature.